Cantwell, doctors say reform may ease physician pinch

By:  John Stucke / The Spokesman-Review
Source: The Spokesman-Review

Spokane medical educators and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell say health care reform can help ease the shortage of doctors in Eastern Washington.

During a Saturday news conference called to highlight an often-overlooked part of the sweeping and controversial new law, Cantwell said there are now federal incentives to help build a four-year medical school in Spokane, along with the ability to double the number of medical residencies.

Broadening medical education has been a priority of regional lawmakers and the medical and business community. Studies say Eastern Washington will need between 640 and 1,000 new doctors within 15 years.

Cantwell and Dr. John McCarthy, president of Washington Academy of Family Physicians, said that a medical school and more residencies are the key to solving the shortage — especially the need for more family-practice doctors.

Such physicians are apt to live and practice within 50 miles of where they had their residencies.

If Spokane could bolster the number of residencies, they said, it would go a long way to reversing the stubborn problem of getting doctors into small towns.

Dr. Chris Olson, a pediatrician, said Spokane has half the children's doctors it needs.

"We have about 35 general pediatricians in Spokane, and we really need about 70 to serve a region our size," he said.

Spokane has enough pediatric specialists — about 70 — but must find a way to attract more general pediatricians.

As an example, Olson said, about 12,000 children were brought to the emergency room at Providence Holy Family Hospital last year. Of those, just 200 were admitted to the hospital.

Such numbers point to an unfortunate scenario: Too many children and families do not have a doctor.

Olson noted that there isn't a single pediatrician practicing in the Hillyard or West Central neighborhoods, where poor families may lack insurance and reliable transportation to visit a doctor.

Cantwell said the federal health care reform has several incentives to attract more medical students to practice primary medicine rather than higher-paying and more-esteemed specialty fields.

One is a 10 percent bonus for five years, and another is increasing the Medicaid reimbursements.

Adding more primary care doctors is seen as a way to hold down health care spending by avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations and emphasizing preventive care.

Cantwell sits on the Senate Finance Committee and had a hand in drafting and amending the health care reform bill.

Her press conference at Washington State University-Spokane did not attract protests by people upset with health reform.